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9 tips to get the most financial aid possible

Experts share their secrets for scoring scholarships and grants for college.

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Knowing how, where and when to apply for financial aid can make all the difference in where you attend school and how much debt you graduate with. Read these tips from financial aid experts to make sure you’re taking advantage of all of your options.

1. Figure out what you can afford before you do anything else.

“Students and parents need to sit down and talk honestly about what is actually affordable. Having a specific number or budget will help guide the rest of the admissions and financial aid processes. Yes, we know that these conversations can be difficult, but they’re necessary. Families can use a net price calculator to predict need-based financial aid at almost any college.”

— Will Geiger, founder of scholarship and financial advice website Scholarships360.org

2. Submit applications before the deadline.

“Student aid is often distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, which means the earlier you file, the more likely you’re going to receive the full award you’re entitled to. The FAFSA opens on October 1st, so filing soon after would be in your best interest to maximize your financial aid.”

— Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., author, financial attorney and founder and director of Tayne Law Group, PC

3. Know where to apply for need-based aid.

“Students can apply for need-based financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But some colleges will also ask students to complete additional applications like the CSS Profile.”

— Will Geiger, founder of scholarship and financial advice website Scholarships360.org

4. Apply for as many scholarships as you can.

Scholarships are free money. Fill out applications for any and all that you’re qualified for because there’s a lot of competition out there. Keep an eye out for renewable scholarships and no-essay scholarships, too.”

— Morgan Taylor, finance expert and chief marketing officer at LetMeBank

5. Apply for lots of smaller scholarships and grants.

“While local businesses often have smaller scholarships, there’s also less competition. This adds up in the end when you win several small scholarships. All you need to do is search on a local business’s website or talk to a manager.

Apply for as many as you can and don’t spend a ton of time on them. The more time you spend on bigger scholarships, the less time you have for the smaller scholarships that you have a better chance of winning.”

— Lindsey Marx, content strategist at Best Company

6. Get to know yourself before writing those scholarship essays.

“About 98% of scholarships require some form of an essay where the committee wants to hear about you. You need to list all of the things that you admire about yourself. Meet with professors, teachers, family members, mentors, counselors at school — anyone who can help you figure out what your top qualities are. Pick three to four that really make you stand out.”

— Lindsey Marx, content strategist at Best Company

7. Know what does and doesn’t count as income.

“Misreporting income on the FAFSA is a common mistake because many applicants aren’t sure what’s considered income. Interest payments, child support and workers’ compensation are all examples of things that do count as income. However, retirement savings or assets such as your home don’t count.”

— Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., author, financial attorney and founder and director of Tayne Law Group, PC

8. Negotiate your aid package if you didn’t get enough.

“Sometimes financial aid packages can be negotiated. You have to ask fast if you want to make an appeal, so try to take action before your college’s FAFSA deadline. Be as specific as you can when explaining your financial hardship in your appeal letter.

You can also use your grades, sports and any talents you may have as leverage. However, be sure to be courteous, polite and professional when communicating with your potential college financial aid office.”

— Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., author, financial attorney and founder and director of Tayne Law Group, PC

9. Have your parents open a 529 account to save tax free.

“Even if your parents are just contributing $50 a month until school starts, that money may earn a small amount of interest and can be used toward purchases such as books so you don’t have to take out extra loans. Parents can contribute to the 529 plan even when the child is in school to spread out some of the costs. For parents of younger kids, start contributing as soon as you can into a 529 to help fray some of the costs. Kids can even contribute some of their after-school job money.”

— Krista Goodrich, author of The Boss Lady Investor

Didn’t get enough free aid? Compare private student loans

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Min. Credit Score Max. Loan Amount APR
Credible Labs Inc. (Student Loan Platform)
Good to excellent credit
Varies by lender (typically, total certified costs of education minus financial aid already received)
Starting at 2.84% with autopay
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Varies by lender
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EDvestinU Private Student Loans
675
$200,000
4.51% to 9.26%
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CommonBond Private Student Loans
700
$500,000
3.31% to 9.74%
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LendingTree Student Loans
Good to excellent credit
Varies by lender
Starting at 3%
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